Metallica v. Napster

“Napster was the ultimate geek banner, a battle that had been fought by hackers on the biggest stage of all. Ultimately, the hackers had lost, but … it was still the biggest hack in history.”–Ben Mezrich, Accidental Billionaires (Ch. 18)

We are going to focus on Napster in our next class, and we are going to re-enact a preliminary injunction hearing in the case of Metallica v. Napster. In that case, the rock band Metallica sued Napster for copyright infringement, in essence, accusing Napster of allowing its users to steal Metallica’s music. Accordingly, we are going to need four student-volunteers for this activity:

(1) Two students will represent the plaintiff, the rock band Metallica, and so your side will argue why Napster’s file-sharing system is illegal (copyright infringement) and why your client is entitled to an injunction.

(2) The other two students will represent the defendant, the peer-to-peer file-sharing website Napster. Your side will argue why Napster’s file-sharing system constitutes “fair use” under federal copyright law.

Here is some background: Before Sean Parker discovered Facebook, he co-founded a company called Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing website that allowed users to share MP3 music files with each other (see image below, courtesy of the website “How Stuff Works”). At the time (1999-2001), Napster was huge. According to Wikipedia, for example, “verified Napster use peaked with 26.4 million users worldwide in February 2001.” By the way, Metallica wasn’t the only plaintiff who sued Napster. The powerful Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) also brought a federal copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster in December 1999, and the RIAA eventually persuaded a court to issue an injunction shutting down the website … But did the court make the correct decision?

Critical thinking question: How is a website like YouTube any different than the old Napster?

This entry was posted in Ethics, Law, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Metallica v. Napster

  1. How is YouTube different than Napster? I wonder that myself. I see two differences — subtle, but differences. One, Napster was bulk download, whereas YouTube is streaming. (Yes a person with the right setup can record and save YouTube output, but YouTube is like radio-on-demand, whereas Napster is product-in-hand.) Second, Napster was not searchable in the same way YouTube is now — Napster was like a county flea-market compared to YouTube’s Walmart of items. YouTube’s scale and presence makes it a more visible enforcement target — a lot easier to see what is being purloined on YouTube than it was on Napster. Perhaps that just reflects the search engine capabilities of those times.

    That said, it does surprise me how lax the scrutiny of YouTube still is. If I owned a music publishing company, I would have hired someone to write algorithms that continuously search YouTube for infringing posts. I see a lot of music disappearing (including the “Hey Bulldog” video to my dismay), but there’s still a lot left.

    • Good points. Another difference is one of timing. Had YouTube been first, with Napster coming along much later, maybe things would be different! On another note, I just finished reading “on predictability” and am in the process of printing out the essays you link to. This post was not only very original and useful to me; it has also “blown my mind” (figuratively) … I will be commenting on it soon!

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